Four Principles of Organizational Trust: How to Make Your Company Trustworthy

Trust, in case you hadn’t noticed, has gotten “hot” lately. But much of it sounds very vague—soft, fluffy, nice-to-have, the buzzword du jour.

I’d like to do my part to make it real.

To me, that means breaking it down and making it sound; tapping into the strategy and mysticism, but also staying grounded in the tactical and the practical.

So let’s review some context; then talk about four specific operating principles a business can hone in on to improve its trustworthiness.

Putting Trust into a Workable Context

I’ve suggested elsewhere that “trust” is too vague a term to work with. To do something practical, we need first to identify the trust realm: are we talking about personal trust, or business/organizational trust, or social/institutional trust?

The next question is about the trust role: are we working on being more trusting? Or more trustworthy? They are not the same thing.  And “trust” is the result of them both interacting.

Building a Trustworthy Business

In the realm “personal” and the role “trustworthy,” we can point to personal beliefs and behaviors as indicated in the Trust Quotient. But in business, trustworthiness is built through a set of daily operating principles. Trustworthiness is built from habitually behaving in accordance with a set of commonly shared beliefs about how to do business.

I suggest they can be boiled down to four.

The Four Trust Principles

1. A focus on the Other (client, customer, internal co-worker, boss, partner, subordinate) for the Other’s sake, not just as a means to one’s own ends.  We often hear “client-focus,” or “customer-centric.” But these are terms all-too-often framed in terms of economic benefit to the person trying to be trusted.

2. A collaborative approach to relationships.  Collaboration here means a willingness to work together, creating both joint goals and joint approaches to getting there.

3. A medium to long term relationship perspective, not a short-term transactional focus. Focus on relationships nurtures transactions; but focus on transactions chokes off relationships. The most profitable relationships for both parties are those where multiple transactions over time are assumed in the approach to each transaction.

4. A habit of being transparent in all one’s dealings.  Transparency has the great virtue of helping recall who said what to whom. It also increases credibility, and lowers self-orientation, by its willingness to keep no secrets.

Executing on the Trust Principles

What are the tools an organization has at its disposal to make itself more trustworthy? Any good change management consultant can rattle off the usual suspects, but for trustworthiness, the emphasis has to shift somewhat.

The usual change mantra includes a heavy dose of behaviors, metrics and incentives. Some of that works here, but only to a point.

For example, Principle 1, focus on the Other, is contradicted by too much extrinsic incentive aimed at leveraging self-interest–it undercuts focus on the Other.  And Principle 3, relationship over transaction, forces metrics and rewards to a far longer timeframe than most change efforts employ. 

Another great shibboleth of change is that it must be led from the CEO’s office. But with trust, it ain’t necessarily so.  Trustworthiness is a great candidate for infectious disease change strategies; guerrilla trust strategies can work at the individual level, and individual players can lead. Behavior in accord with these principles cannot be coerced; the flipside is, it can be unilaterally engaged in.

The most powerful tools to create a trustworthy organization are things like language, recognition, story-telling, simply paying attention to the arenas where the principles apply—and the will to apply them.  Role-modeling helps; some skill-building helps.  But most of all, it is the willingness to notice the pervasive opportunities to work in accordance with this simple set of four principles.

Trustworthiness breeds trusting (the reverse is true too); the combination is what leads to trust. Which, by the way, is quite measurable in its impact on the bottom line.

The Problem with B-Schools is the Problem with Business

The New York Times’ business section yesterday published an article by Kelly Holland (perhaps her best yet) titled, Is it Time to Retrain B-Schools?

The putative answer was ‘yes,’ and I agree. But what does that mean? From the article:

“It is so obvious that something big has failed. We can look the other way, but come on. The C.E.O.’s of those companies, those are people we used to brag about. We cannot say, ‘Well, it wasn’t our fault’ when there is such a systemic, widespread failure of leadership.” Ángel Cabrera, Dean,Thunderbird School of Global Management in Glendale, Ariz.

“We lived through an enormous extended period of financial good times, and people became less focused on risks and risk management and more focused on making money. We need to move that focus back toward the center.” Jay Light, Dean, Harvard Business School

“The schools suffer from an overemphasis on rigor and an under-emphasis on relevance. Business schools have forgotten that they are a professional school.” Warren Bennis, USC Business School and noted leadership author.

“A kind of market fundamentalism took hold in business education. The new logic of shareholder primacy absolved management of any responsibility for anything other than financial results.” Rakesh Khurana, a professor at Harvard Business School

“Business creates value in terms of services and products. That’s what business delivers, just like medicine delivers a healthy person.” Sharon M. Oster, Dean, Yale School of Management.

“There are extraordinary things taking place in business education, and a lot that is very promising. But what’s the central theorem of business education? It’s wanting.” Judith F. Samuelson, Exec. Director, Business and Society Program, the Aspen Institute.

The bookend quotes have it right. Cabrera when he says there’s an obvious problem, and Samuelson when she says the central theorem of business education is wanting.
Those in the middle, IMHO, are not yet at the core of the answer.

So here’s my take.

The first post I ever did in this blog—October 2006—was looking back from a 30th reunion at Harvard Business School. It was about this very point, and I think it holds up. Here, in part, is what I said then:

The biggest single characteristic of business in future is that everything is getting connected. In a connected world, a focus on competitive relationships isn’t useful. What we need is an emphasis on connectivity, trust and collaboration.

HBS needs to teach less competitive differentiation and more collaborative value-adding; less how to win supply chain negotiations and more how everyone gains by operating them as a system; less about transactions, more about relationships.

We don’t need more ethics courses—we need an ethos of business itself.

Last I looked, the ethics course at HBS teaches a “balanced” approach to three spheres: competitive, legal, and social.

Meanwhile, down the hall in the core strategy courses, those same students are taught that business at its core is about corporate competition. To define strategy that way is to define ethics as a branch of strategy—how to steer the corporate ship between the Scylla and Charybdis of the law and society.

In that Hobbesian world-view, there is no room for an Other. And where there is no Other, There Just Cannot Be any such thing as “ethics.” “Business ethics” is become an oxymoron.

There can be no ethics until “strategy” reclassifies customers, suppliers and employees as co-equal with shareholders—rather than as categories of “competitive forces.”  Which is exactly what is taught now, and which lies at the heart of the matter. 

The solution doesn’t lie in Dean Oster’s redefinition of value; nor in Dean Light’s move back to the balanced risk center. Nor even in de-emphasizing shareholder value.

The solution lies in modernizing our ideas of how business actually works. Away from an ideology of corporate competition forged in the past. Toward recognizing the collaboration of many in the pursuit of commerce that is fast becoming reality today.

Collaboration is the new competition. We are not isolated anymore. We are all linked. It’s a fact, and one that our mental representations need to catch up to.

We can no longer afford competition-centric thinking—neither in business, nor in the b-schools.


Trust Is the New Leadership In A Flat World

Thomas Friedman’s book The World is Flat is an absurdly great best-seller.

It was a best-seller when printed in 2005, and as of today it’s still ranked #112 on Amazon. That’s a lotta bananas.

I don’t recall if Friedman ever defines “flat”—but it is an apt adjective.

“Flat” conveys the sense of “level playing field,” as in markets opening up to competitors from everywhere. It suggests a levelling of wages and prices, for the same reason. And it certainly conveys the feeling of lots and lots of interaction between buyers and sellers.

But enough about Friedman. Here’s what “flat” says to me.

Business used to be about stable, vertically organized, fire-walled, corporate entities—which competed against each other. That was business.

Not any more.

In the “flat” world, we don’t have corporations—we have supply chains. The vast majority of the auto industry’s costs are purchased costs. I’m told that when Tata set out to design a sub-$2500 car, they didn’t call a company meeting—they called a supply chain meeting.

The old job of leaders and managers—to organize (largely hierarchical) efforts within the walls of the Good Ole Corporation—is disappearing.

The new job is being done by supply chain managers, customer relationship managers, key account sales managers, and field engineers.

And that new job is not about directing people over whom you have control—it is about influencing those over whom you have absolutely no control whatsoever.

Trust is the new leadership.

It’s no longer about how you measure, motivate and inspire those beneath you or with the same W-2 form as you. It’s about how you connect with, help, and serve those with whom you interact in the Great Outside World.

Trust is the new leadership.

It’s no longer about how you help those who depend on you. It’s about how you help those on whom you depend.

And there’s the rub. Our old leadership models were internal; it was OK to help your people—after all, you all worked for Good Ole Corp.

But in old-think strategy, the customer and the supplier are your competitors too (think Five Forces model). Don’t share your cost information; contract for everything; you get what you bargain for; check with the lawyers.

In a flat world, old-think strategy runs smack up against new-think leadership.

In a flat world, you actually have to trust your supply chain. Your supply chain is your friend, not your enemy.

It’s no mistake Davos this year was all about collaboration. Collaboration is the new competition.

And trust is the new leadership.

Like old “internal” leadership, it comes with a paradox. If you focus on serving others, you will be served yourself. But if you set out to serve yourself by the “means” of serving others, you will be found out.

Trust and Corporate Change

Close your eyes and make a mental list of models for corporate change.

There are models of “what is needed.” One such model posits three needs: pressure, vision and first steps.

There are models of “types of change.”  For example, linking participative management to incremental change, and directive leadership to transformative change.

There are models of tools to leverage for change: a favorite of mine is People, Structure, Systems, Culture.

There are "how to" models.  One  emphasizes leadership; another, vision or intent; a third, alignment.

Then there are descriptive models—they use OD frameworks, or industrial economic models, to classify and distinguish types, levels and genres of corporate change.

But you don’t hear much about linking trust to corporate change. Nor is corporate change the first thing most of us think of when we think of trust in business.

Which is curious, because the presence or absence of trust within an organization can greatly affect a company’s ability to change.

Let’s say you need to make an acquisition; or enter a new business; or up your growth rate by four percentage points. How would a low-trust organization go about it?  How would a high-trust organization go about it?

Low-trust organizations are typically run on the basis of either consensus, fear, or contracts. All three have their problems.

—Consensus-based organizations can be very thorough, but slow to adapt—since trust doesn’t exist between parties, it has to get re-created by consensus each time.   If fast change is required, that’s a drawback.

—Fear-based organizations can be efficient at implementing change, but there is a big burden on the few fear-drivers to be right—they are deprived of the value of direct input from others, who fear them. The more complex and fast the change, the greater the risk of the leader getting it wrong.

—Contract-based organizations substitute a market in place of consensus. For any given transaction it may be more efficient than consensus.  But there get to be an awful lot of contracts and transactions made, all of which require time and people to track them.  It’s an expensive model to maintain, and even more expensive to tweak.

Then there are trust-based organizations. In such an organization, if your partner says he’ll do something, that’s it.  You don’t need a consensus session. You just trust he’ll do it. And your partner  will do what he said, because that’s how you get to be trusted.

You also tend to trust your partners’ judgment—because you trust they will tell you if they don’t know something. You take their word at face value.

Unlike a fear-based organization, you trust that you partners will raise issues that need raising; and they won’t raise issues not worth it.

Best of all—unlike a market-based organization, you trust that everything your partners think and do will have your interests at heart for the long run; they will not be distracted by the short-term transactional commissions, bonus points or other "incentive" schemes based on the improvement of an individual’s own short-term self-interest.

In such organizations, you don’t need nearly as many contracts to make sure your partner will do what he says. You don’t need so many measurement systems to track and distribute agreed-upon incentives and outcomes.  And the whole organization is not hostage to the judgment of a few people.

Which kind of organization will most easily change on a dime, and get it right? The answer is pretty clear.

Trust pays off when it’s time to change.


The July Carnival of Trust

Carnival of Trust logo

Welcome to the July edition of the Carnival of Trust.

I specifically invite you to read it as a whole, not as simply ten selected parts. There are themes that weave between the ten postings.

That’s what we promised you: an intelligent winnowing down to ten of some excellent writings on trust—in business, in sales, in government, in personal life.

But I hope this goes beyond. There are several story lines connecting the postings. I have tried to point out a few. Please have fun finding others, and add your own commentary here.

Thanks to all the contributors, including a number of excellent submissions that didn’t make it to Top Ten this time. Please don’t be disheartened; if you’re on point, keep submitting. Next month, the Editor at the Blawg Review has kindly consented to host the Carnival of Trust; guest hosting will be the rule going forward. Please stay tuned for details.

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Is Big Pharma Shifty?

John Mack is a respected newsletter writer and blogger in the pharmaceutical sector, a major part of global industry and a critical one these days. Mack analyzes a Harris Interactive poll that shows "consumers think Big Pharma is shifty as well as greedy." No, no, not shifty too? Mack interprets for us.

A Little Knowledge is Great Marketing

Is it possible for a mega-corporation to act transparently and in the best interests of the consumer, in the belief that doing so will generate wiser customers first, and, later, higher profits for the company?

Ron Shevlin, at MarketingROI, would like to think so, and suggests that Bank of America’s recent educate-the-consumer initiative is such an effort—at least on face value.  Not unlike what Brad Burnham’s point of view B argues in Who Do You Trust to Edit Your News, below.

I share Ron’s hopes, though I’m sceptical that a major company like BofA can achieve escape velocity from the mass of company-centric, short-term metrics that have hijacked terms like "customer focus" in recent years.

Web Commerce, Trust and Akerlof’s Law

What do used car advertisements and dating services have in common? Allan Patrick educates us about Akerlof’s law about the asymmetry of information. Basically, absent independent brands of rating systems, "liars drive out buyers." What can a small quality website without brandname or a massive rating system do? Patrick has a few ideas. Interestingly, one of them—give the customer more information—would appear to be exactly what Ron Shevlin is talking about in A Little Knowledge is Great Marketing—see above.

How is Marketing About Relationships

Economics 101 tells us markets are about products and prices; in Econ 201, you hear about advertising and bargaining and bluffing, and in industrial economics, you learn about power dynamics in industry sectors.

But in Life 101, you learn how haggling over rugs creates relationships and societies, as well as efficiencies and long-term customers.

Dawud Miracle draws from a story in the Cluetrain Manifesto to explain how. Think about how it applies to the pharma-consumer relationship in John Mack’s post, Is Big Pharma Shifty?

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Agreement and Trust

Scott McLeod applies a great two-by-two matrix concept from Peter Block. The model is for analyzing leaders’ relationships with their essential people. For each relationship, how much do you trust them, and how much do you agree with them? Not all 2×2 grids result in useful diagnostics; this one does.

Credibility as a Core Company Initiative

Ardath Albee talks about relationship marketing minus thought leadership in her blog Marketing Interactions.

"I was speaking with a VP of marketing who said thought leadership was low on her priority list because it didn’t have an immediate impact on revenues…

The problem with only focusing on the near term is that when it runs out, what have you got left? To build credibility, every B2B company that’s in the game for the long-term should focus on thought leadership as one of their initiatives. Relationship marketing is a focus of many marketing initiatives these days, but without credibility, how strong a relationship can you build?"

Quite right, Ardath; high relationship can’t excuse zero content.

Blogging and Transparency Build Trust

Michele Martin works at the intersection of new media and the non-profit and government sectors. Trust works there too. Michele highlights an adept use of blogging by Six Apart CEO Barak Berkowitz to create trust—legitimately. You can tag this under transparency and candor as well as blogging and trust. (See also Alex Todd’s post, one selection down from this one).

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Creating Trust in Government

Alex Todd is a thoughtful writer and consultant on trust, particularly on his concept of trust enablement.
A good example of Alex’s thinking is this post, about a current proposal in the Canadian legislature called the "Federal Accountability Act." Says Todd:

you cannot defend against a loss of trust unless trust already exists. Creating sustained trust – in government, commerce or our private lives – requires a balance of two approaches: both building trust and creating mechanisms to ensure that trust will not be abused.

A fine example of solid thinking applied intelligently to real and current issues.  Listen up, Ottawa. And Washington.  Trust isn’t just about prohibiting conflicts of interest; it’s also about engineering trusted relationships. (See also Dawud Miracle’s entry about markets and relationships, above).

Who do you Trust to Edit Your News?

Brad Burnham reports on his personal power-take-away from the Personal Democracy Forum in New York.

Point of View A: The lack of editorial control on the web leads to a dumbing down of media and culture, wherein YouTube makes television look positively BBC-like and facts are wildly out of control.

Point of View B: The web instantly corrects mis-statements of fact.

Brads post says more about this. He feels POV B wins on the media point.  I feel persuaded on that point, but the case for dumb and dumber at the cultural level still stands, IMHO.

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How to Keep Your Word, Tupelo Kenyon

How should you keep your word?  Impeccably.

So argues Tupelo Kenyon, concluding "your word is your bond, your character, your reputation, and your integrity.  Your word is your opporutnity to practice being impeccable."

He argues it tightly.  And at length.  And in terms ranging from logic to history to poetry. You might say, impeccably.

Not an obvious choice for this carnival, but I hope you’ll agree a good one.

Do You Trust Your Boss?

My assistant, Trish, asked me, “When are you going to blog about employee trust?”

I asked her what she meant. She explained that she trusted a great deal in me and her other boss—to do the right things for her, to provide job security, to create a rich experience.

Now, I’ve had a boss, and I’ve been a boss. And if I knew then what I know now—well, then I’d have known a whole lot more.

I think that my experience working for people was probably typical. I liked most of my bosses. Those I liked, I trusted a lot; those I didn’t, not so much.

To those I liked, I imputed wisdom. I would ask them questions if I didn’t know the answer, and I asked a lot. The best boss answered socratically.

(The best single employee lesson I ever got was from a terrible boss; he couldn’t articulate what it was he wanted, and I was finally so frustrated that I did what I thought was right. Which turned out to be what he had been trying to tell me. Lightbulb.)

I thought they were older (true, in my case) and wiser (so I thought; not true in the rear-view mirror). I argued with them, just to engage and to find out their logic. Sometimes, this would piss them off. It didn’t dawn on me they didn’t know.

From the rear view mirror, I see now they were hardly different from me. One was wildly insecure. Another, insecure and alcoholic. One, quixotic. Another, sometimes wrong but never in doubt. Most had charisma. All were genuinely nice people, and all could make some Really Stupid Moves.

I suspect my experience is the norm.

(Though for about 6 months, Jamie Dimon, President of J. P. Morgan Chase, one of Time’s 100 most influential people in 2006, reported to me. Well, administratively anyway; not quite the same as being his boss. Jamie didn’t have quite the awe for his bosses that I did. I suspect Jamie figured he was smarter than all of them, and just lacked seasoning and data. I imagine Jamie still believes that, and by now he’s more than earned the right to say nyah, nyah, he was right, too!)

Jamie aside, the rest of us have met the enemy, and it is us. I am my old bosses, at various times, in various ways. I’m just another sentient idiot on the planet trying to make sense of it all and keep the back foot movin’, hoping the front foot it’s following is generally hewing to a forward-wise di-rection.

A study once queried students and faculty, asking each what they thought of the other group, and how much time they spent thinking about that group. The results: faculty spent little time thinking about students, but figured the students thought a lot about them. The students spent little time thinking about the faculty but figured the faculty spent lots of time thinking about them.

Moral: In the real world, empathy consists of staring at the other guy’s feet almost as often as at your own.

And Trish trusts me. Hoo boy.

But you know, when people trust you, it has an ennobling effect. Yes, I tell her to think for herself, and not to be dependent on others. But, I still try to do right by her. I do want to be a good boss.

After all, she trusts me. Waddya gonna do?